How Crazy is English!!! – Adjective Order

This is part of an occasional series showcasing the wacky crazy and lovable world of the English language.

I’m a native English speaker. I also have a degree in English, and I have a teaching certification in English and English as a Second or Other Language. I also teach English pronunciation. To make things worse, I read a lot – in English. English is kind of my jam (something I enjoy a lot).

I also have to laugh at the crazy things about English that I “know” as a teacher/speaker/reader/etc., but that I forget about until they’re right in my face (made very obvious).

There is a (somewhat) strict order for the adjectives that are used before a noun.

“Huh?” you might ask. “What difference does it make”

It’s completely true! It’s not as strict as, say, the order of a sentence (the vast majority of sentences in English are in subject-verb-object order), but it is pretty strict.

The adjective order is:

    1. Opinion (e.g., beautiful, handsome)
    2. Size (e.g., big, small)
    3. Age (e.g., young, old)
    4. Shape (e.g., triangle, round)
    5. Color (e.g., blue, yellow)
    6. Origin (e.g., British, American)
    7. Material (e.g., acrylic, leather 
    8. Purpose (e.g., running, as in running shoes; standing, as in a standing desk)

Like with most rules in English, it’s not absolute, but in a study of thousands of texts, this rule was obeyed about 78% of the time. (Much better odds than, say, the old saw about I before e except after c, which only applies to about 44 words in English, whereas 923 don’t follow the rule!)

Which sounds better?

     The big round yellow light was really bright. or The round yellow big light was really bright.

     Her dog is a beautiful small brown Yorkshire terrier. or Her dog is a Yorkshire brown small beautiful terrier.

     That tiny new blue car is a Mini Cooper. or That blue new tiny car is a Mini Cooper.

For native English speakers, the first sentence of each of these pairs sounds better.

But, as always, there are exceptions!

If you want to emphasis a certain quality, you might put it at the beginning of the list of adjectives. For example, you might say, “I want the blue little box” to distinguish it from the black little box.

Also, in the written arts, creativity will often come before the rules. For example, Thomas Wolfe speaks of “brown tired autumn earth”, and Yeats discloses, “I strove/ to love you in the old high way of love.” Or the old fairy tale, The Big Bad Wolf.

Luckily, for most English language learners, this order is pretty common to some other languages as well, especially the Romance languages. So chances are, you’re probably already doing it right!

English can be crazy, but learning how to pronounce it doesn’t have to be!
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